Milk Money Gives Back To New Orleans Community
Community engagement through commerce is something of a buzzy concept in 2015: over 800 million millennials now work for companies with a social purpose, and many within this demographic also aim to purchase products they believe in, whether that means supporting small, local businesses or using their purchasing power to choose organic whenever possible.
The John Besh Foundation founded its “Milk Money” micro-loan initiative in order to underscore this same mission.
Between 1970 and 2006, the number of Dairy farms in the United States fell 88 percent. Dairy farming, an often-generational occupation, wasn’t financially sustaining farmers the way that it used to. The dairy industry needed to shift from commercial operations, which involved selling milk to large corporations, to self-bottling (also-known-as on-farm processing– a costly and often laborious process). The Mauthe family were the first farm in Mississippi and Louisiana to make this transition in 2001, after 40 years of commercial farming. “It was probably the first time that a farmer had bottled milk, in those two states, since the 1950s,” Jamie Mauthe told me. “In order to stay in the dairy business and survive, for the next generation, we had to think outside of the box. We’d read about farmers up north doing this so we took the chance.”
Jamie and her husband Kenny have raised four kids at their farm in McComb, Mississippi— 100 miles from New Orleans. They milk their cows in Mississippi and process the dairy in Folsom, Louisiana on Kenny’s childhood farm. Kenny, meanwhile, is a third generation dairy farmer; in the 1930s his family delivered milk door-to-door in the Lower Ninth Ward. He was destined to dairy, but he and Jamie expounded on the concept by cleverly reintroducing creole cream cheese, a product that had been extinct for over 20 years. “Kenny’s Dad traded an antique shot gun to get our creole cream cheese molds from the last commercial company to make them,” Jamie said.
The New Orleans community was enchanted with their product, which is traditionally served savory or sweet for breakfast. After an endorsement from Slow Food USA, they would sell 100 creole cream cheeses per day at the local farmer’s market. The community excitement lead them to develop Milk Lady Cheesecake infused with creole cream cheese, which they sold at the farmers market and to various restaurants throughout Louisiana.
Despite their success, when the deadliest and most costly hurricane in NOLA history swept the streets of southeast Louisiana in 2005, they were forced to sell their heard along with 220 acres of land.
The Mauthes spoke to various banks about a micro-loan but weren’t eligible due to their noncommercial farming methods. Jamie and Kenny would spend the next four years working off the farm jobs to support their family and rebuild their business. By 2010, the family had renovated their barn, built a commercial kitchen, and had three cows. If they wanted to expand, they’d need more capital to purchase glass bottles (in which the market was showing great interest), cups for the creole cream cheese, labels for their product, and most importantly: more cows.
It just so happened that the John Besh Foundation was at the beginning stages of development around this same time, and whispers of starting an initiative to give micro-loans to local farmers was an idea they’d been floating. John Besh has been deemed the “Best Chef in the Southeast” by the James Beard Foundation, one of the “Ten Best New Chefs in America” by Food & Wine Magazine, and he was also bestowed the prized Food Arts’ Silver Spoon Award. With his credentials and eleven successful restaurants in tow, Besh was interested in reviving farming culture in New Orleans (his Willa Jean Bakery will open there this summer), and he was the perfect person to initiate its development. Chef Besh was raised and currently resides in Louisiana, and “Milk Money” loans became his way to nod at both New Orleans and its culinary community.
Besh founded the non-profit and developed three initiatives: the Colorado Culinary Academy Scholarship, Chef’s Move, and Milk Money, all with the same goal in mind: “giving back to the NOLA community with something that everyone can enjoy— food”.
Gabriela Durán, who has served as the foundations assistant director since 2014, notes that the Mauthe Progress Dairy Farm became the first recipients of Milk Money, a micro-loan program for local farmers, “that don’t necessary have the skills or the business know how to take their product and make it widespread.” The Besh Foundation partnered with nearby Hope Credit Union to service loans in a 200-mile radius to NOLA, and the foundation arranged for a business mentorship with Tulane University.
“That’s what makes us unique,” Durán explained. “We offer micro-loans at low rates, but Chef Besh’s restaurants and team also back up these loans in terms of mentorship. Chef Besh wants to see everything around here grow. He understands the land, the water, the soil, and the products in the surrounding coast and area.” This expertise is instrumental to the growth of micro-loan recipients, who have five years to pay off the loan.Good Eggs, an online grocery store for local products.
Milk Money has a rolling admissions program, and following the Mauthe Progress Fairy, they have granted loans to Accardo’s Gourmet Produce, Happy Hen Farm, and the Bartlett Farm in Lousiana. The organization plans to add 2-4 farmers in the next two years. “It’s a slow adoption but one that aims for quality versus quantity. We don’t want to get a billion farmers loans and not offer any mentorship,” Duran says.
Today, the Mauthe family has 50 cows and their products are sold in 40 grocery stores. Their biggest time of the year are the holidays, including Mardi Gras, where they debuted a new king cake cheesecake. Their latest project involves partnering with French Truck to launch their first line of coffee milk drinks, and there are plenty more projects on the horizon. Within the year they intend to expand their farm, their kitchen, and to invest in a bottle filler, which will enable them to fill 500 pints in 15 minutes. The Mauthe’s vital efforts to pursue their dream and the love that the Besh Foundation has instilled in the community is ultimately what gives the program value. Assisting farmers with micro-loans not only gives NOLA residents a way to make a living, but it also gives them access to products worth fighting for.